BACK IN THE DAY: The Griffin Opera House
Nov 18, 2014 09:30AM, Published by A Kitchen Drawer Writer , Categories: Community
Originally published in Volume 4 Issue 1 of Kitchen Drawer Magazine
This historical establishment has been around for more than a century, and now, with a bit of renovation, will hopefully continue to be a unique part of our community.
The Griffin Opera House, located on the corner of Hill and Solomon Streets behind Angelo’s, was built in 1894. The three-story building was constructed by the Oddfellows; the third floor served as their meeting space, and the entire second floor was devoted to the Opera House.
The Opera House first opened on January 10th, 1895 with a concert by the Baldwin Rogers Company full brass band. The entire auditorium was filled to capacity. The gallery had six tiers and stage-level seats, and two box seats directly beside the stage that held four people each. The Opera House saw continued success through the 1920s, with acts including vaudeville, magic shows, minstrels, opera companies, and comedians. Griffin and The Olympic Theater (as it was called through much of its golden years) was on the touring circuit with actors arriving in town via train.
The Opera House has a rich history within the community. One legend about the opera house is that Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, performed on the stage. This has been proven false, however, since he died a year before the building began construction. At the time of the Spanish-American War, the Opera House was a popular recreational spot for the thousands of soldiers training at Camp Northern (located on the grounds of City Park). The Griffin Elks Lodge was chartered in the Opera House in 1910. Unfortunately, as the popularity of motion pictures grew, business for the Opera House declined, and the last performers graced the stage between 1925 and 1930.
The walls are literally filled with the building’s interesting history. In one tiny dressing room that was used for the less prominent actors, the walls are covered with graffiti. Actors who performed on stage left their signatures on the walls. Names and dates range from the turn of the century to the 1920s. One signature by a returning actor reads, “Geo Sweet Mutt and Jeff in Mexico, 1912-13-14-15.” (Mutt and Jeff in Mexico is an animated short from 1913).
After the days of performances ended, ownership changed hands multiple times. Currently, the Opera House is owned by Woody Heath, who also owns Hollywood Hills and Xanadu. A major restoration and renovation is under way on the building. The renovations have attempted to preserve the ambience of the early twentieth century building. Although much of the structure has been replaced, some parts are original, such as the floors, the box seats beside the stage, the woodwork above the stage, and the stage lights.
Woody is the creative mind behind the opera house’s new design. “I just love old historical buildings, he states. “I never have a plan; I just love buildings and to build.” He has put his interesting touch into the décor in the building. The slats around the balcony railing are made up of crystal candle vases with electric lights, and the wooden molding accents around the stage and walls were created with bed headboards. Many of the pieces of furniture are antique reproductions.
Although a great deal of work has already been done to the building, much has yet to be finished. When completed, the theater will seat around 300 people. The balcony is being remodeled into VIP seating with large upholstered booths with tables that will seat eight. Woody plans to place old art and tapestries around the walls, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and decorative pieces around the stage like Greek drama masks or shields. The stage backdrop currently is a collection of murals of downtown Griffin scenes, but the goal is to replicate the original stage backdrop using a picture from the early 1900s.
Currently, the building is only rented out for weddings, dinners, receptions, and family reunions. Woody and his associate Beverly Fields plan to expand in the new year. In the spring, Beverly wants to host an open house with a jazz quartet and a Frank Sinatra-Ella Fitzgerald night. Other ideas for the space are concerts, plays, dance performances, choral productions, and even seminars. “There are so many things that can be done,” Woody says. “The acoustics in here are wonderful.”
“The Opera House is the best kept secret in Griffin,” Beverly states. With its opening to the public early next year, they hope this will change. With plans for jazz nights, dancing, concerts, and a bar, Woody adds, “Once we get it completed and finished, it’s going to be the place to be.”